The Hot Seat: Ken West

Published in The Music Network.


In a rare interview, the Big Day Out co-founder discusses their “perpetual motion machine”, The Black Keys, taking a year off and why the festival craze can’t sustain itself.

Ken, what drives you and your team to get this show out on the road each year?
It’s not so much driving, it’s more like a car out of control. You can’t stop it. It’s a bit of a perpetual motion machine. There’s already momentum for the year after. In some ways, the process is about trying to think outside the box, to keep it as volatile and on-edge as possible without compromising audience safety or let it backfire on our own plans.

These days, it’s a much more calculated process to hit those same goals, which was originally to achieve “organized chaos.” Only now it’s more organized.

How soon after this show will you and Viv Lees leap into plans for 2012?
We’re doing a bit of that on the road already. We’re moving into the next stage of getting some acts to make commitments.

Is it a stressful gig?
Yeah, if you take it seriously. It’s stressful with the authorities trying to strangle it. Be it the government, the police, the venues, the licensees, the anti-smoking lobbies, the anti-drink folks and people who want to make it over-18 because they’re worried that the under-18s will be corrupted by us.

Is scalping still a problem?
It’s been an easy problem to solve this year because there’s been so much oversupply [in the concerts space]. To eliminate scalping, you oversupply. Like the second show situation in Sydney, that’s partly to do with it. If you didn’t have the second show, you’d have a lot more scalping problems.

The Black Keys pulled out at the eleventh hour. Do late cancellations throw a big spanner into the works?
If it’s a major act, yes. But you’ve just got to roll with it. Yes, it’s a shame for the Black Keys, which had sideshows which now have to be refunded. You just hope they’ll honour it and come back next year. There’s more than 800 people on the road, and here’s just two people. We’re dealing with about 60 bands and we’re booking six months out. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.

Are there plans to expand the BDO even further?
Considering how difficult the year has been for everybody, it’s more about consolidation. We’ve got six solid cities. We’ll try to do some kind of spin-off event, it might be a special event, a joint-venture perhaps. There are many ways we can expand what we do rather than just trying to build BDO bigger and bigger. The sideshows are doing really well, and they’ve all sold out. Whether those sideshows end up being more multiple-band bills is something we’ll look at after these shows.

Can the festivals craze sustain itself?
No, it can’t. Yes it’s a social phenomenon. The festivals’ structure was a form of social gathering where you would hook up with your friends at a certain time and that became a neighbourhood. Some people argued that it became a religion, but that’s too far-stretched. Eventually, quite a few people will decide they’re over them and do other things. If it’s fashionistic, then chances are it will go out of fashion. There are a lot of good value shows, and there’s a whole lot of shit ones. They come and go.

With the Aussie dollar flying so high, is that helping promoters? Or is it a “false economy”?
The danger of that is it can swing both ways. If you buy a band in a one-to-one [currency] ratio and find the Australian dollar drops to 70 [U.S.] cents, you go under. That’s going to be the big cruncher. We’ve been through it about five times where it’s dropped about 30%. It can happen again. It’s a big test. We don’t as a rule pay bands in overseas currency, because we sell our tickets in Australian dollars.

How much longer do you plan to keep doing this?
For myself, there’s a few more years then we’ll work out what’s going to happen after that. Whether it’s a change of the guard, or rather a change in the relationship. The coalface is pretty hard. It might be a possibility where we take a break once every four years.

Michael Eavis at Glastonbury Festival has a “fallow” year every four or five years.
Well, he owns the property and it’s a farm. We don’t own the properties. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if we had a year’s break. Homebake had a year off. No big deal, they’ll come back and it’ll be back to normal. Next year’s the 20th BDO show.

Let’s see what we can come up with, and let’s look at [having a temporary break] after that.

:: Read our BDO behind-the-scenes cover story
:: See Tony Mott’s BDO Gold Coast photos
Read Lars Brandle’s Gold Coast review

:: Click here for the original story.